Orient Your Reader: Who, Where, When of Scene Writing

Portals organizers, Gina Ochsner & Colette Tennant

I had a great time this past weekend, teaching fiction techniques at a rockin’ new writers conference called Portals. Both of my workshops involved scene writing, and many of the participants were young adults. One scene writing technique, orienting the reader, came up again and again.
Writing Tip for Today: In good scene writing, it’s also vital to inform the reader of the What, How and Why. But I believe your reader won’t get that far unless you provide some very basic info. Here’s what I mean:

  • Set Your Scene Before Dialogue. If your novel opens with a line of dialogue, the reader won’t yet know if it is spoken by a prom queen, a warrior or a mouse. By inserting the attribution (a tag that identifies who is talking) BEFORE the actual spoken words, at least the reader gets some idea of the WHO. And it’s easy to add in clues about where and when the character is.
  • Keep the Focus on the Character. In contrast, don’t go on for many sentences about the lush landscape or the time period without also letting us see them through the character’s eyes. This is the heart of Point of View (POV). Most writers are not James Mitchener, able to hook the reader with long descriptions of some primordial (but no human) perspective. The omniscient viewpoint or “God’s eye” view, can’t help us know one particular character with some particular problems. We want to be somebody, root for somebody, laugh and cry with SOMEbody. That somebody is your main POV character, who can tell us where and when we are.
  • Without a Reference, it’s Contemporary. If your story is contemporary, you don’t need to tell us anything about it. Readers assume this unless told otherwise. If you want the reader to be any time except right now, cue her early on–probably in the first sentence. Readers don’t like to read along for pages and suddenly discover they’ve imagined the story world at the wrong place or time. ALWAYS remember: if your reader ever feels confused about where or when they are in the story, or who is “speaking” to them, they may say, “I’ll just finish this later.” And later will be lucky to ever arrive. Orient your readers!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Orient Your Reader: Who, Where, When of Scene Writing

  1. I agree 100 per cent. Set the scene with time and place, followed by an ID of the speaker/protagonist, then on with the story. I won’t wander around for 30 or 40 pages wondering where I am and what I’m doing there. That’s one of my gripes with prologues that bring in a nameless killer doing his or her dirty work to someone some place, as if trying to entice a reader with unexplained horrors. Forget it!

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